Chapter Six

Take Me Out

One of the more critically-successful endeavors was The Main Event, a multi-page, many-thousand word feature story that ran two to three times per week and took on the kind of sports stories that many writers dreamed of writing on a regular basis, but couldn’t, because they had to cover their beat. At the same time The National was getting started, so was a book series called The Best American Sports Writing, published by Houghton Mifflin. The 1991 edition, which contained exemplary sports writing from 1990, included four stories from The National, all of them “Main Events;” but there could have been more. Peter Richmond was a regular writer of the “Main Event” and he got two stories into BASW, which set a record that stands today.

“Peter Richmond did a series that year on ballparks, it was really good and he was very nearly in there three times, and we sort of drew the line. And, in fact, it’s the only time somebody’s been in twice (in the same edition),” said Glenn Stout, who has edited the series since its inception, and feels that the death of The National has certainly made his job harder. “If you talked to anyone who worked for The National, that was dream job stuff. Here was this paper that was all of a sudden there, hiring people to do features, and that was exactly what newspapers were starting to get away from. And a lot of people took advantage of it.”

Pierce, Richmond and Howard’s stories made it into BASW that year, and they compare favorably to the BASW litmus test that the articles be primarily great writing and secondarily about sports. Howard wrote a compelling piece that could run in any magazine today about the transition of a young professional hockey player with goal-scoring aspirations into an enforcer. “The Making of a Goon” ran on Feb. 18, 1990 and detailed the mental and physical punishment that Joe Kocur, the Detroit Red Wings enforcer, went through over the course of an NHL season. Instead of assuming that Kocur was a meathead and thinking that he wasn’t worth a profile, Howard’s story was a conduit for the reader to gain a greater sense of what this player was like as a person. Charles P. Pierce wrote a smart story called “Thieves of Time” that was filled with cultural and literary allusions. In detailing the story of memorabilia thieves who stole Negro League baseball artifacts from an aged, sick and nearly blind “Cool Papa” Bell, Pierce referred to the Catholic Church selling “pieces of the cross” to parishioners many years after the death of Christ, Michael Milliken and his illicit commodity trading, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti. The first story by Richmond that made the BASW cut was “Death of a Cowboy,” a story about Lane Frost, the 1989 world bull riding champion, who died in the ring after being bucked off of a bull named Bad to the Bone. The story took a non-mainstream subject (especially for readers in The National’s target markets of New York, Chicago and L.A.) and made it accessible to readers of all kinds. The fact that Frost was a bull rider was secondary to the story of his death’s impact on the sport. One could imagine, if The National had been around a few years ago, that Richmond might have done an equally careful treatment of how Dale Earnhardt’s death affected NASCAR. Richmond’s other BASW-worthy story that year was “The Sports Fan,” his chronicle of a few days hanging out in Chicago and attending Cubs games with Bill Murray. The story featured Murray, who then was a hometown hero for his work in the Second City comedy troupe, Saturday Night Live and Ghostbusters, hanging out with celebrities such as Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood-Mac, and yelling goofy one-liners at Cubs player Mark Grace while he was in the on-deck circle. Richmond’s story also revealed that Murray had a favorite beer vendor who always brought him the coldest Old Styles, he loved going to games with his family, and he was ultra-tolerant with fans who wanted a quick chat or an autograph, as long as it was between innings. The articles were smart and fun to read.

A commuter boarding a train from Greenwich, Conn. every morning has 50 minutes before he pulls into Grand Central Terminal, and definitely has 10 minutes to read a well-crafted feature story. This goes against the Media Week theory that The National was too smart for its readers.

“I always felt, and feel to this day, that there is room, it’s not primary, but every newspaper should have room for long takeouts and long features,” Deford said. “And most people aren’t going to read them, but if you start with the premise that nobody is going to read them, you’re wrong. But if you start with the premise that we can only do things which most people approve of, you’re wrong, too. We felt if it’s only 15-20 percent of the people who really like these things, well, that’s good enough, because we felt that that’s 15-20 percent of the people that are really going to like us, really going to appreciate us. Even Sports Illustrated has cut back on it in recent years, and I think it’s a mistake. I don’t know what the optimum length is, but I think there should be room for those kinds of pieces in all newspapers.

“And, I would go one step further, because sports lends itself to good writing, because you have such vivid characters, and extraordinary experiences, it’s even more to your favor to have good writing, to have simply good storytelling. So, we were never under any illusion that this was going to appeal to everybody. We always felt like the statistics were going to be more important (to most readers) but we always felt this was key to one fifth or one sixth of our potential audience.”

But the statistics were key. The premiere issue had expanded box scores for every NBA and NHL game from January 30, plus smaller score sheets for a number of big college basketball games.

“We had much more innovative box scores,” McKenzie said. “We had the last 10 games. You could see trends and season averages. It was like three box scores in one. With the hockey box score, ours was the first one you could make some sense out of, and nobody ever picked those up.”

The hockey box scores took up as much space as the game recaps, and showed shots, goals, assists, penalties, penalty minutes, goals, points and plus-minus for all skaters, along with shots faced, saves, save percentage, season wins-losses-ties and goals against average for goaltenders. They went on to show goals per period, shots per period, and listed each goal scorer and included a comment for what kind of goal it was, i.e. “power play, drive from point,” “tap in off rebound,” and “one-timed slap shot into slot.”

The basketball box scores were more traditional, but had extra details, such as: offensive-total rebounds, turnovers, steals, personal fouls, blocks and “points per minute.” The notes below the box scores listed lead changes, largest leads for each team and technical fouls. Every box score was a monster.

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